Restaurant Tip Inflation: the 20 Percent Solution?

One of the most prominent restaurant critics in the country insists that you tip 20 percent at all times, which comes as a shock to some. When did 20 percent become expected? Earlier, it seems, than I thought.

restaurant check

 

The LA Weekly’s brilliant food critic, Jonathan Gold, wrote a post that’s been getting a lot of attention: “10 Handy Rules for Tipping":

Yes, I know your parents still talk about when the recommended percentage used to be 15 percent, and that the practice is considered barbaric in Japan. But it’s not 1973, and you’re probably not in Osaka at the moment. 20 percent.

It inspired a surprising amount of anger in the comments section, as tipping always does, which surprises me. I tip 20 percent, because my mom was a waitress, and tips paid for her master’s degree. And because the difference between 15 and 20 just doesn’t strike me as that much—on a $100 tab, it’s $5. For a job that can be difficult, and at all but the nicest restaurants, doesn’t pay terribly well, as Barbara Ehrenreich found, writing in 1998:

The seductive thing about waitressing is that you don’t have to wait for payday to feel a few bills in your pocket, and my tips usually cover meals and gas, plus something left over to stuff into the kitchen drawer I use as a bank. But as the tourist business slows in the summer heat, I sometimes leave work with only $20 in tips (the gross is higher, but servers share about 15 percent of their tips with the busboys and bartenders). With wages included, this amounts to about the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. Although the sum in the drawer is piling up, at the present rate of accumulation it will be more than a hundred dollars short of my rent when the end of the month comes around.

In Illinois the minimum wage for tipped employees is $4.85; employers are supposed to make up the difference if tips don’t make up the difference between that and the standard minimum, but I don’t assume that always happens.

Anyway, I got off on a tangent. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones was surprised that Gold considers 20 percent standard, assuming it was 15 percent, and wonders when it changed. One commenter notes that Emily Post recommended 10 percent back in 1922. In 2004, Miss Manners said 15 percent was typical.

Some Gen X commenters say their parents tipped 15 percent, and that now it’s 15 to 20, which would have been my guess. It reminded me of Chicago Confidential’s advice to city-goers, which surprised me when I first read it, assuming that back in the good old days (specifically 1950) tipping was much lower. Their advice: “Remember that 10 percent is no longer sufficient for a waiter. He ought to get 15 to 20 percent.” They also recommend tipping liberally when using trains and taxis.

Which makes me suspect that 20 percent has been a standard of a sort for much longer than I would have assumed, and I wonder if it was higher in the cities.

 

Photograph: iwona_kellie (CC by 2.0)

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3 years ago
Posted by MrJM

If you can't afford to tip (20%), then you can't afford to eat.

-- MrJM

3 years ago
Posted by Jon Davies

Yes, the tipping standard has been 20% for at least 10 years (as long as I've been working in the restaurant industry).

I might advise you and your readers to check out my favorite video blog right now. He's this waiter on YouTube and he teaches people how to be better customers. He almost always ends with, "Don't forget to tip your waiter 20% on the total of the bill. It's standard."

http://www.youtube.com/yourdailytip

He's funny, cute, angry, bitter, satirical, and - most of all - truthful. I've seen his page grow from 20 subscribers to over 2,000! He deserves more, I think.

3 years ago
Posted by auan12

20% of a $100 tab is 20 dollars not 5.

3 years ago
Posted by Joel77

Tips should be calculated from the subtotal not total. You should not be expected to pay gratuity on the tax.

3 years ago
Posted by mene

I always tip at least 20% of the total bill before taxes but I am always conflicted about wine with dinner. If I ordered a $100 bottle of wine why should I have to tip 20% of that also? I always break it down by 1/2 and subtract it from the total amount to calculate the tip. However, it seems that waiters are not too appreciative when it does not add up to 20% of the total bill even thought they are getting much more than from those who did not order alcohol or ordered much cheaper wine. I have never been able to get a straight answer, even from my wine enthusiast friends. Would love some comments.

3 years ago
Posted by mene

I always tip at least 20% of the total bill before taxes but I am always conflicted about wine with dinner. If I ordered a $100 bottle of wine why should I have to tip 20% of that also? I always break it down by 1/2 and subtract it from the total amount to calculate the tip. However, it seems that waiters are not too appreciative when it does not add up to 20% of the total bill even thought they are getting much more than from those who did not order alcohol or ordered much cheaper wine. I have never been able to get a straight answer, even from my wine enthusiast friends. Would love some comments.

3 years ago
Posted by SteveP

@MENE, The tip on a bottle of wine is always a point of contention. Surely I agree the wait staff does no more work to open a $20 bottle as opposed to a $100 bottle, so definitely why should you tip more. One place however is a wine bar, where they cater more to a wine crowd.

The wait staff at a Denny's do an incredible amount of work for a $15-20 check, so I usually leave them more.

Tips were supposed to be an appreciation of good service (and that includes a good personality), not an expectation which it seems to be today. Most servers are wonderful, like anything, it's the few who ruin it for the others.

I waited table and it helps pay for my college. 15% was the norm then, and people were upset as they previously paid 10%.

When I lived in Germany, the tip was literally translated into "Drink Money", so if the bill was 19Euro, you left 20Euro. You pretty much just round up. Of course over there, they are salaried employees.

3 years ago
Posted by jrp2

I definitely tip 20% at a minimum (with extremely few occasions to go lower for horrible service).

Also, don't forget to add more if it is happy hour and you got cheap food and/or drink!

I don't drink wine, but I kind of agree with the other poster that I might go lower if I bought a $100 bottle.

I will say, when I walk into a regular spot I am treated royally, often get comped a beer, get a table faster, etc. Tipping well and being pleasant pays off in many ways, especially at spots you go regularly.

3 years ago
Posted by chelofthesea

RE: The wine tips

What you forget (or possibly don't know, as many don't) is that all alcohol, regardless of glass, pitcher, or bottle, is taken into account when "tipping out" aka money off of a server's tips that go to the bartender, barbacks, and/or bussers. While it's true that your server doesn't do more work opening a $100 bottle of wine versus a $20 bottle of wine, his/her tips are still coming off the price of that bottle. If you have the means to order a $100 bottle of wine (I wish I did! However, my serving money doesn't quite buy me that status!), then you surely have the means to tip 15-20% on said bottle!

Also remember that more often than not your servers do not have health insurance. Their meager earnings are not only paying their rents, phone bills, car payments, etc, but might also be going to the (outrageously priced) health insurance. As long as this is the case, yes, tipping should be a standard 18-20%. (As a server myself, if I have absolutely terrible service, I tip 15%, if I have excellt service I tip more towards 25%. 10%? Never.)

3 years ago
Posted by amazon

I'm not sure why ethnic culture has not been brought up in this article. I have been a server and bartender for many years, both in suburbs and in downtown Chicago. In the suburbs, the average tip is about 15% and in the city about 10%. Even if a server just only does his/her job, you need to tip correctly due to the tips outs. There is a ethnic culture breakdown in tips and service. Different cultures expect different levels of service and expect your happy in their "gifting" of a tip. Bartenders and servers have a secret high distain for a single culture, due to either completely giving 5%-10% tips or leaving none at all.

3 years ago
Posted by midmodtom

I always tip 20% ... on the total bill. I also over-tip my favorite servers across Chicago. They deserve it ... and so much more

3 years ago
Posted by TipJar2011

I tip 20 percent on full bill including all alcoholic beverages regardless of price. Only if really poor service do I lower to 15 percent. What burns me up the most is when your wait staff doesn't come back to your table to say thank you or good night. That's flat out rude and unexceptable to any of you out there that this applies to. I sent posting to restaurant owner just lady week advising that if it happens again on his restaurant, he won't get my business again. Anyone else feel so strongly about this?

2 years ago
Posted by neezer76

I must make two points. Number one, as a server/bartender at the most respected casual dining chain in the united states for over six years, it is a fact that over 75 percent of guests in our restaurant tip at least 20%. No question about it. Personally, my service is normally exceptional, and 90 percent of my guests tip me at least 20%. Therefore, you fools who post about your opposition to the STANDARD arent worth my time. Understand, losers, that YOU, indeed, are the joke. Number two, if you morons were the majority, you ABSOLUTELY would be paying that much more for your food anyways...but im sure that is uncomprehensible for you, anyways.

2 years ago
Posted by chef4you

As someone who has worked in the service industry for a long time, I can assure you that you should TIP 20% of the total bill (yes, after tax not before) for good service. The reason?? Because of the 20% you leave, that money pays the server who gave you a great meal experience, bartender who made your cocktail, the backwaiter who cleared your plate, the barista who made your cappucino, the food runner who brought you your food, and the other support staff who are needed to make a restaurant run. When you stiff a waiter, you stiff everyone else who works hard in the establishment. Waiters only keep a small portion of their tips, and remember that they pay taxes on their wages as well.

1 year ago
Posted by Bertram

I can understand 20% if the cost of the meal was the same over the years, but fact is the price of the meal also goes up. If we increase both the price of the meal and percentage, well, I'm wondering in 10, 20, or longer -- 50%, 75% 100% tip?

Some might say it sounds like double dipping. After all people complain about the retired getting retirement and then a job. I see news stories about it in Chicago all the time. I guess everyone wants to double dip and it would be fine, but I'm disable and can't work after retirement. I'm stuck on the same pay for life and now the cheap Republicans want to cut Social Security. Thanks a lot!

As for saying if you can't afford 20% don't eat out, well, fine. Take fun away from the disabled and elderly. Maybe if we took the Soylent Green approach things would improve but right now that approach is illegal. Hey, it does sound like an approach some conservatives, though, would find acceptable after all I'm already born and they don't fight to keep the born alive. (Actually the opposite many times.)

5 months ago
Posted by oriole1

I'm sick and tired of the controversy. Inflation takes care of %-based items. There is no need to inflate an already huge fig. by an extra 1/3! Be happy with what u get from a discretionary item. There're no mandates. If they want 15% I give 'em 10. Do u pay sticker price when u buy a car? Only an idiot would. If owners weren't so cheap and greedy, the poor consumer wouldn't get stuck tipping on top of an inflated price which should cover labor. Go cry to your mothers u bunch of money mongers.

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